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Let?s talk hypothetically. Let?s say the 49ers don?t play well in Houston next Sunday. Let?s say the offense is as crummy as it clearly was against the Falcons. What happens next?

Remember this is hypothetical and it?s possible the offense will be great in Houston. But just suppose it?s not.

Here?s one suggestion. Coach Mike Singletary should bench quarterback Shaun Hill and play Alex Smith ASAP. It?s accepted wisdom that Hill should be the starting quarterback, that he?s better, more deserving than Smith. Is that really the case?

Let?s give Hill his due. He has a quarterback?s temperament ? you feel there?s some Joe Montana in the guy. He is calm, never seems to lose his poise and makes big plays when you think he?s having a crummy game. Those are all admirable qualities. I have written he has ?It,? and those traits are a large part of It.

But he has some very un-It-like traits. He doesn?t throw so well, especially if the pass requires distance. He becomes a heaver instead of a thrower. He is a distinctly mediocre passer in a line of work that requires better-than-average passing. Because he is limited, he cannot bring a team back if it falls behind as the 49ers did against Atlanta. He is a dud as a catch-up quarterback. This is known.

Singletary likes Hill because Hill is a game manager. That translates as a guy who won?t screw things up, who won?t lose the game through carelessness or recklessness. Singletary has a conservative, unimaginative approach to offense and Hill is the perfect quarterback for that system. So, sure, Hill won?t lose a game, but he also can?t win a game if called upon. That?s not much of an endorsement and it?s not what we are used to around here.

There?s also Hill?s history to consider. Before he played a few games for the Niners in 2007 he had been in the league five years ? four in Minnesota, one in San Francisco ? and attempted no passes.

Forty-Niner fans find that statistic ? of being null and void for five seasons in the passing department ? kind of cute. It?s like the geniuses in San Francisco finally saw what just about everyone else in the league couldn?t see ? that Hill is a future star.

That?s to assume football people don?t know what they?re looking at. That?s quite an assumption. There?s another way to perceive Hill. He is a so-so quarterback. Personnel people around the league saw him for what he was and is and that?s why he lingered without getting a chance. There was a good reason he didn?t play. I could be all wet on that, but I don?t think so.

Now for the thought that dare not express itself. Smith may be a better quarterback than Hill. Oh, let?s be stronger than that. Smith almost surely is a better quarterback than Hill. Make fun of Smith for being the first player taken in the draft if you want, but he was the first player taken in the draft.

And here?s the big one. We know exactly who Hill is and, most important, we know he never will get any better than what he is right now. He is a hill that never will erupt into a mountain. Maybe Smith can become a mountain. Maybe Smith has a ton more potential than Hill. No one will know as long as he sits on the bench or is reduced to throwing passes to Michael Crabtree during the bye week.

In football circles they use the word ?upside.? Smith has more upside than Hill because Hill has no upside. If Hill flounders against Houston, or if down the line his personal limitations become a distinct limitation on the team, Singletary should make the change to Smith.

Singletary seems encouraged by the present state of affairs, which shows a certain amount of improvement. It?s nice to improve in the present, but at some point Singletary must decide which quarterback gives him the better future.

For more on the world of sports in general and the Bay Area in particular, go to the Cohn Zohn at blog.pressdemocrat.com/cohn. You can reach Staff Columnist Lowell Cohn at lowell.cohn@pressdemocrat.com.